A sense of danger bubbled throughout Mike’s act; struggling to control his rage only added to the hilarity. There was no feigned jocularity or cloying platitudes to win the crowd’s favor. His comedy was serious business. Either the laughs came or this man was heading for a tower with a rifle. -Ritch Shydner
As a comic performer, Mike MacDonald set the bar. He had no equal. There were plenty of other acts who were talented, immensely funny, entertaining or insightful.
But Mike had it all.
Onstage, before an audience, there was no one who could touch him. No one. Especially in a club setting. The more intimate, the better. That is when you really felt the danger Ritch speaks of above.
Mike’s material had a barely-concealed air of menace back then. He could tread a razors edge between hysterical and vicious. And there was always the threat of that power breaking loose.
He was infamous for his occasional ‘marathon’ club shows, which tested the limits of live performance. Something would set him off, and away he’d go. First, a solid hour-long set of his best material, killing all the way. Then an hour and a half, then two…
Keep in mind that this would take place AFTER the audience had already sat through 45 minutes to an hour of live comedy. Because there were other performers on the line-up before Mike hit the stage, though you often forgot this. The MC. The opening act. Sometimes maybe even a middle.
Audiences get tired. They get hot, drunk, and tired. And every room, every crowd, has its own breaking point. People CAN get ‘laughed out.’ It is a thing. They just run out of steam. In general, comedy audiences can take about 2 hours of solid laughter before exhaustion hits.
Unless something exceptional happens.
So to keep an audience howling for longer than this….really, really laughing – without getting restless, or getting up and leaving, or falling into a stupor of silence and fatigue – requires very strong material, a blinding stage presence, and immense skill and timing.
Which is exactly why Mike, and his aforementioned close friend Ritch Shydner, found it a challenge worth accepting….
For a while there, these two comedic leviathans made it a personal and professional competition to hold their audiences hostage using nothing more than ‘jokes’ and sheer force of personality. They tried to out-do one another, with the audience none the wiser.
There were rules:
- You couldn’t just go up and do your schtick for as long as you were able to keep talking. The audience still had to be in the room when you wrapped up.
- It had to be your own original material of course.
- And – the audience still had to want more when you finally left the stage.
As best I can determine, from all my sources, the official ‘record’ for the longest non-stop feature/headline set is three continuous hours. It took place in Lenny Austervichs’ room in Chicago. AFTER an hour of other performers beforehand.
Three hours of original material, nothing duplicated. The crowd howling with laughter. Unable to breathe, tears streaming down their faces, and nearly in physical pain.
Not a single audience member left the room. Nor did the comics who were present – watching stunned and transfixed from the back, re-assessing their own vocational choices…
That record, is held by Mike MacDonald.
He even got a standing ovation when he finally wrapped up.
I have also been told by reliable sources, that this herculean feat was repeated by Mike on at least two other occasions, in other venues.
And there are unconfirmed reports that – after hearing Shydner had managed to match it – Mike hit the four hour mark at least once…
So if any comics reading this were actually there, and can confirm the location and details, please let me know so I can amend this post.
As brilliant and funny as it was, the marathon show was a ruthless kind of torture. Like being tickled against your will. It might seem self-indulgent. It might seem arrogant. It might even seem cruel.
It was all of those things.
But no one wanted to leave before it was over. They got their money’s worth.
Three continuous hours.
To the best of my knowledge, Mike’s record still stands to this day.
Some comics left the stage without a trace, never giving a hint as to who they really were. Their comedy was clever and funny, but too impersonal for me. I watched Mike MacDonald for five minutes and understood him completely. He connected to his audience in a profound, visceral way. – Ritch Shydner
Mike had his share of demons.
In fact, he had a closet full of them.
When he relocated to Toronto in the late 70’s he began to experiment with serious drugs. All drugs. Every drug. From uppers like cocaine to downers like heroin. And for awhile there, he lived a fast and very dark life.
In fact it was Mike, who gave fellow comedy legend Sam Kinison his first intravenous shot of heroin. Mike was not proud of this, but he loved to tell the story anyway – because of the gag that went with it.
With his usual impeccable timing, he had waited until Sam was really feeling the effects of the drug, then grabbed him by the collar and bellowed into his face menacingly,
‘One more soul and I get mine back!’
Dark, dark days.
Drugs threatened to destroy Mike. They began to take over his life. He tried to quit on his own several times only to relapse shortly afterwards. He often told myself and other friends that he only managed to stop for good when he found his faith.
Yeah, you heard me right.
The Comedic Prince of Darkness found God.
It had happened suddenly and dramatically, at a time when Mike had already become a heavy heroin user. He had gone into a tailspin, sinking into a bottomless chasm of addiction. He knew his habit could kill him, but felt powerless to stop.
One night, in complete despair, he ended up sobbing and pleading to God, for the first time in his life.
“I got on my knees,” he would recall later, “and asked God to save me.” “Please, please, just help me stop…..I need to stop.”
Broken, overwhelmed, he then curled up in fetal position on the floor, sobbing until he finally fell into what he later called “the best sleep of my life.”
And when he awoke the next day, something very strange happened.
He had no further craving for the drug.
No physical withdrawal. No sickness, no pain.
That,’ he told the rest of us, ‘is a miracle.’
What else could one call it? It was impossible. And yet, it had happened.
Mike believed God had taken pity on him. He believed that he had been saved.
Mike kept true to his faith the rest of his days. He never used heroin or any other hard drugs again.
He did not share his conversion with others unless they asked, but he did not hide it either. And although he had been changed spiritually, the essence of funny within was not dulled. He remained sharp, driven, ambitious, and relentlessly focused.
And he never lost the dark side of his comedic voice either.
THE ENEMY WITHIN
“The first time you saw him, you couldn’t believe how focused he was on stage. How much power he held back and could unleash if he wanted to.” – John Wing Jr.
By the time I met him, Mike was clean and sober. He was sharp dressed, focused, and more determined than ever to succeed. He worked harder than any comic I’ve ever met. He never stopped. He took his craft very seriously. He taped every show. He wrote new material…every…single…day.
His energy was boundless. He was always full of ideas and plans – for films, television, cable specials, even books. I never knew him to be at a loss for inspiration. Every time I spoke to him he had a new project on the go, a new concept to explore.
But this inexhaustible drive was also symptomatic of a demon which plagued him for the majority of his life; mental illness. One beast his faith could not banish.
Although he had probably suffered from manic depressive bipolar disorder since his early 20‘s, Mike was not correctly diagnosed until his late 30’s. It probably came as both a relief and a shock to him to learn the true origin of his instability. It also signalled the beginning of a battle that would last the rest of his life.
Personally, I always suspected that Mike’s earlier drug use was not just a result of his natural impulse to push his own boundaries. I think it was an attempt to self-medicate, to subdue the many symptoms of his illness. But I will never know for sure.
On a recent podcast, Mike described how his symptoms would manifest, the pattern of behaviour that would develop. First he would get really angry, then depressed, and finally – as the symptoms worsened – suicidal.
Things came to a head in 1993, while Mike and his wife Bonnie were still living in Los Angeles.
Mike had been hoping to appear on the David Letterman show, and had just gotten word that this would not happen. Angry, then depressed, he got in his car and began to drive. He passed a gun shop in Glendale and decided to stop.
He parked the car and went in -with the terrifying intention of buying a weapon to finish himself off. But to his chagrin, he was informed that California had a ten day waiting period for gun purchases.
That one legal requirement undoubtedly saved Mike’s life.
Unfortunately the helpful salesman then told Mike he could try a weapon out first, before buying it. All he had to do was come by the local firing range. This gave Mike – in his distressed and suicidal state – a grim idea. He didn’t have to wait ten days. He could shoot himself at the firing range.
Mike drove home, contemplating his plan. Luckily, when he got there, his wife Bonnie – who no doubt had been frantic – immediately put him on the telephone to a respected celebrity psychiatrist. The good doctor just happened to be represented by Mike’s manager. (L.A, right?)
The doctor suggested he voluntarily check himself in to a Los Angeles psychiatric ward for 30 days of rest and observation. Mike allowed himself to be persuaded, but secretly he still planned to visit the firing range.
Instead, he remained at the hospital for over two months. It was probably the first relief he had felt in years. He later described it as being, ‘the best vacation I ever had.’
Mike and I spoke soon after he was discharged, and he told me he had been horribly frustrated by the doctors.
‘Why,” I asked, ‘did you feel that you couldn’t talk to them?’
“Naw, it wasn’t that. They had no sense of humour! I was coming out with such funny lines, and they would just stare at me, then write something on their notepad! Worst audience ever!’
We talked for some time that day. I was relieved to hear him sounding more like his old self again. The flat monotone of depression had left his voice, and there was no bitten-word anger lingering. Instead, he was back to winding me up and laughing.
I teased him back, telling him that a mental health hospital was the worst place for a comic like him to be, seeing as how he had access to other vulnerable patients.
‘Because you think you’re funny,’ I told him in mock admonishment, ‘and you know which buttons to push….’
He let loose with that evil-schoolgirl giggle he emitted whenever he was amused by something dark, and then launched into a story about how he had been approached by a woman patient at the hospital soon after his admission.
She had eyed him, then said accusingly,
“They sent you here to watch me, didn’t they?”
‘No,’ he replied, then pointed to another female patient sitting nearby. He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper.
‘They sent me to watch her.‘
‘You see,’ I laughed, ‘that is exactly what I’m talking about…’
LET BATTLE COMMENCE…
It takes time and energy to find the right medication to treat a mental illness. Every single patient is different. What works for one, may not work for another.
It takes weeks or even months, before you will know if a drug is effective. Then you might need to tweak the dosage. And if that particular medication is not right, it can also take weeks to come off it. You can never, ever, just stop taking an anti-depressant or anti-psychotic drug. You have to be weaned off it.
The side-effects of some drugs can almost be worse than the illness itself. So you have that to deal with too. Bottom line is there are no quick fixes. No instant relief. Its a long process. And of course, when you’re in crisis, every hour feels like torture.
Mike was to find this out for himself as he began the Russian roulette of meds and variable dosage.
One of the drugs he tried left him unable to work.
He discovered this the hard way – standing before an audience, just starting a show. Suddenly his mind went completely blank. As he frantically grasped for something, anything, to say to the roomful of expectant faces, the horror of it began to grip him. After what must have seemed like minutes, but was probably only seconds, he actually had to apologize to the audience and leave the stage.
For a showman like Mike there could have been nothing more upsetting.
The promoter was furious. He charged over demanding an explanation. Reluctantly Mike confessed that he was on a new medication. Turned out the man’s wife had once been on the very same drug. Now sympathetic, he told Mike sadly, ‘she didn’t leave her bed for two years…’
Eventually Mike seemed to find a blend of medication which allowed him to function normally again. But then he found himself facing yet another battle. One of discrimination.
After his diagnosis, Mike could have kept his struggle with mental illness quiet. After all, he was at heart a very private person.
Instead, he chose to go public. He believed – rightfully – that his condition was nothing to be ashamed of, and hoped his honesty would help others. In his eyes, it was simply new fodder for his act. Another layer in his ever-evolving repertoire.
I don’t know if he expected the backlash of lost work he would face as a result, but that is exactly what he got.
Suddenly gigs were being cancelled, and his professionalism and reliability questioned. He was passed over for some shows, others he was never even considered for. Comedy festivals he should otherwise have been booked to do, dried up – as if he was some sort of comedic liability.
This says far more about those responsible for booking those shows than it did about Mike. But Mike found the situation both frustrating and infuriating. After all, he hadn’t changed. He was the same guy, a top comic, and still as strong a performer as ever. His illness was not interfering with his ability. How could he be punished for what was beyond his control?
Yet punished he was.
Over the decades, those who profited from live comedy never had any ethical misgivings about booking drunken, drug-addicted comics. Or ones with questionable material either. Not if they sold tickets.
As long as the act showed up in time for the show, bookers and agents, venue owners and producers, would happily turn a blind eye. Comics with addiction issues were treated with the same indulgence and dispassionate contempt as rock stars.
But it turned out these same people did seem to have a problem booking a comic who was struggling with mental illness.
And so, yet another life battle ensued.
In typical MacDonald grit, Mike charged right in. He would not be silenced. He continued to speak out honestly and openly about his battle with mental illness the rest of his days – giving hope and reassurance to countless hundreds of thousands who suffered the same affliction. He was breaking the stigma long before it was fashionable.
He did benefits for mental health charities, and openly promoted good mental health and awareness.
He incorporated his experiences into his act. And he was loved even more for doing so. He found a new niche for his humor. He found ways to make the most vulnerable of us laugh.
In doing so, he undoubtedly changed lives. Maybe even saved some. I doubt he ever regretted his decision. His comedy had always been about the true essence of human nature, our honest character, our internal dialogue.
Our secret selves.
(More to come…)